Paupers, Workhouses and Guardians

Extract from Overseers' bill for the Meldreth workhouse, 1696
Quoted by E M Hampson, 'Treatment of poverty in Cambridgeshire 1597 - 1834' (first published 1934), p. 185
The Smithy at the Old Town House, North End, Meldreth, 1925
Photo supplied by Joan Gane
The Old Town House, North End, Meldreth, photographed in the 1970s
Photo supplied by Alison Chalkley
Title page extract, 1601 Act for Relief of the Poor
Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834
Royston Union Workhouse, erected 1835-36, at Baldock Road to the west of the town; it was demolished in 1972
Advertisement in Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 13th June 1868, inviting tenders for the supply of day-old bread for 'Out-Door Paupers' in Meldreth and elsewhere

In her book ‘The Treatment of Poverty in Cambridgeshire 1597-1834’ (Cambridge University Press Archives, 2009 but first published, 1934) Mary Ethel Hampson traces a workhouse in Meldreth back to at least the late seventeenth century when parish papers record an overseer’s bill, shown here:

She continues, “There was little in the way of an organised workhouse at Meldreth in 1707, but wheels, reels and cards were supplied by the overseer to certain of the occupants lodged in the Town House. Other inmates found employment for themselves, and still others subsisted on doles from the parish. The house played a very minor role in the life of the village poor. In 1717 a new building was opened at Meldreth but it differed little in character from the previous one.” Note: The Old Town House, now a private residence which still stands in North End, has served at various times as as a post office and possibly a meeting house; it was in use as a smithy in the early twentieth century: see the Meldreth Blacksmiths page on this website.

So what were these workhouses and how did they operate locally? Note: for detailed information on the provision of relief to the poor and the history of the workhouse, see Peter Higginbotham’s website:

From the sixteenth century onwards governments legislated to provide relief to those in poverty. Not all were to be treated alike: an Act of 1536 provided financial support for the ‘impotent poor’ but ‘sturdy beggars’ were required to work. Funds were administered by local parishes and raised by voluntary subscription.

From 1552 onwards parishes were legally obliged to keep registers of the poor and later powers were given to Justices of the Peace to raise money for their relief. The Poor Law Act of 1601 was the major piece of legislation of the period which required property owners to make a financial contribution to the relief of poverty – the origin of the present day council tax. As Hampson records, parishes sometimes set able-bodied paupers to work in what was known as ‘field-keeping’ where tasks included breaking and sifting gravel and carting stones: “as early as 1717 Meldreth set a man to work “gathering stones” for several days a week, and made up the insufficient wages so earned by “6d extra” (Hampson, page 187).

From 1723 onwards the poor could only get relief by entering a workhouse but later legislation reversed this, excluding the able-bodied from the workhouse and requiring parishes to provide them with work or ‘outdoor’ relief (i.e. relief given outside the workhouse). The early parish workhouses were often not purpose-built; many rural parishes with sparse populations would put paupers in rented accommodation, providing relief for others while they continued to live in their own homes. The two Meldreth workhouses referred to above may well have been rented properties of this kind.

Bridget Hill, who has studied the effects of the various pieces of legislation on women, writes that a ‘chief concern of the Poor Law officials was to free the parish of the actual or potential burden of young women by giving them encouragements to go into domestic service, sometimes by paying their fare to London, meeting the expense of new clothes and, indeed, helping them to find places. (of employment)…Occasionally the intentions of the overseers were thwarted. In Meldreth, Cambridgeshire, in 1728, for instance there is recorded “let to Mary Newens in the towns name, to prevail with her to goe away off from Meldreth, 4s 6d – and she hath not gon” (from ‘Women Alone – Spinsters in England, 1660 – 1850’, Bridget Hill, Yale University Press, 2001).

The operation of the Poor Law, introduced in Elizabethan times, came under increasing criticism and by the late eighteenth century there were particular concerns about people travelling long distances in search of work, the rising cost of ‘outdoor’ relief and the very low wages paid to agricultural labourers where they received a supplementary allowance from the parish.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 (see photo above) was introduced to try to bring an end to the provision of assistance beyond the workhouse. It provided for everyone a right to relief from being destitute but on the proviso that all paupers would have to enter the workhouse. If anyone did so all other members of their family had to follow suit, though once inside families were split with separate accommodation for men, women and children. Living conditions were intended to be so spartan as to deter anyone not in desperate need. Personal clothes and effects were removed from the ‘inmates’ (as they were known) and they were provided with cloth uniforms. Food was notoriously plain and monotonous – typically bread, cheese and gruel (a form of thin porridge). Children were provided with some basic medical care (unavailable at the time outside the workhouse) and a rudimentary education, though often insufficient to equip them for life outside the institution.

Six hundred unions of parishes were established by the Poor Law Amendment Act, each managed by an elected Board of Guardians. Meldreth was one of 29 parishes from three different counties administered by the Royston Poor Law Union. The parishes had a total population at the 1831 census in excess of 15,000. Peter Higginbotham records that the Royston Union came into being on 29th June 1835 ( with 32 Guardians on its Board (the figures in brackets show parishes electing more than one Guardian):

County of Hertford: Ashwell, Barkway, Barley, Hinxworth, Kelshall, Nuthampstead, Reed, Royston (2), Therfield.

County of Cambridge: Abbington Pigotts, Barrington, Bassingbourn (2), Foulmire [Fowlmere], Foxton, Kneesworth, Littlington, Melbourn (2), Meldreth, Guilden Mordern, Steeple Mordern, Royston, Shepreth, Shingay, Thriplow, Wendy, Whaddon.

County of Essex: Heydon, Great Chishall, Little Chishall

The Royston Union built a new workhouse in 1835-36 on the north side of Baldock road to the west of the town (see photo above). Designed by William T Nash, it cost £6,400 and could house 300 inmates. The Union was one of many which continued to provide ‘outdoor’ relief, so frustrating the legislative intent that only those resident in the workhouse should receive relief. This is indicated by the regular advertisements it placed in the local press seeking tenders for the provision of supplies to poor parishioners living outside the workhouse.

The advertisement shown above, from 1868, refers to the supply of “best seconds bread” which should be a “day old” and also “best seconds flour.” Tenders were also invited for the supply of “new milk” and for groceries, drapery, shoes and leather. At the same time the Guardians sought suppliers of “beef and mutton for the Officers’ table” and, curiously, also for the Union workhouse, “6 gallons of brandy….3 gallons of gin…and 12 dozen pint bottles of port wine.”

The 1881 Census shows that of the 145 residents of the Royston Union workhouse, three were born in Meldreth: Benjamin Norman, aged 68, a carpenter; Edward Handscombe Junior, aged 11, a scholar (schoolboy) and his brother, Walter Handscombe, aged 15, described as a ‘General Labourer In House.’ The Master of the Workhouse was Robert Austin, a Chelsea Pensioner and the Matron, his wife, Elizabeth. Amongst the other inmates were agricultural labourers, housemaids, tailors, straw plaiters, a pillow lace maker, a sawyer, a wheelwright, a cooper, a groom and gardener, a pedlar and a teacher. There were 55 ‘scholars’, that is, children of school age, the youngest 4 years of age, and several infants, one a baby just a month old.

Workhouses continued to be run by Unions such as the Royston one until 1930 when their management by Poor Law Guardians was formally ended but many became Public Assistance Institutions after that and were turned into hospitals in 1948 with the advent of the National Health Service. The former Maternity Hospital on Mill Road, Cambridge is a case in point – it was previously a workhouse.

Acknowledgement: With thanks to Peter Higginbotham for permission to use two of the images from his website ( which appear on this page and his helpful comments in relation to the continued provision of outdoor relief following the Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834.

Comments about this page

  • My father John William Pepper, son of John William Pepper and Elsie May Pepper nee Languish, was born in the workhouse at Royston.

    His family came from Meldreth and Melbourn, and his father was born in Dolphin Lane Melbourn, son of Henry Pepper and Elisabeth Pepper nee Smith.

    By Ian Pepper (06/06/2016)
  • My ancestor James Casbon was from Meldreth. An 1853 burial record for his daughter Emma lists her place of abode as the Royston workhouse.

    By Jon Casbon (12/04/2016)

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